“American Ultra” is this August”s attempt to reel in audiences still hungry for that last bit of relentless, momentous summer action and thirsty for an original story. It succeeds moderately well at delivering both. The film follows lost soul/American slacker yute Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). A kind, but broken burnout who spends his days manning the register at a Cash ‘n” Carry convenience store, getting high in the empty parking lot, and sketching out the various adventures of his unrealized comic creation “Apollo Ape.” His nights pass with his beloved Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in their not quite rundown, but “lived in” stoner love shack. Mike is crippled by paralyzing panic attacks whenever he attempts to travel and is convinced that he”s hobbling Phoebe”s full potential.
She does, in fact, seem all but saintly, initially. Phoebe functions as what one character describes as Mike”s “girlfriend, mother, landlord, and maid” – which does not spell hot and sexy. There”s something appealingly tender about their dynamic, though, as well as her infinite patience. Her behavior is justified later in the film via a twist that doesn”t entirely land. Having said that, their relationship is the glue that holds “American Ultra” together, and Eisenberg is surprisingly effective as an infinitely sweet-natured killing machine.
The film”s central conceit is that Mike is a CIA sleeper agent, activated when an outlandishly smarmy and incompetent operative played by Topher Grace sends several of his “assets” to eliminate him. Jason Bourne with a bong is a pretty easy joke, but also a fairly accurate description of what the film is attempting to achieve.
Despite the thinness of that premise, “American Ultra” is reasonably entertaining, particularly in the initial third and has several clever, endearing, and charming moments. The crux of the humor springs from the paradox of Mike”s mind struggling to keep pace with his body. His reflexes allow him to murder-at-will with any given household appliance, but his brain is so addled that he”s as likely to pause when a ruthless assassin calls out to him for a chat as he is to ask for specific directions to a very obvious trap. The set-up makes for some amusing — if predictable — gags. Unfortunately, the film eventually reads as a loosely constructed framework to house a single joke. Director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) and screenwriter Max Landis (“Chronicle”) are more devoted to their original concept than to a fully fleshed-out story.
The chemistry between the leads, however, is palpable and their relationship, as well as some portions of the action sequences, are the film”s most successful aspects. Howell”s heighted super-assassin skills pave the way for what could have been truly innovative violence, but Nourizadeh never hones in on a signature aesthetic. The film is stylistically incongruent and feels like a series of experiments, rather than the execution of a clear vision. Ultimately, I was left craving another visit with “The Raid 2””s Hammer Girl for a look at visceral, breathtaking hand-to-hand at its best.
There are some engaging turns from the support cast, including Connie Britton as the mastermind who spearheaded the now-defunct program that turned Mike into a PhD in death — and John Leguizamo as his dealer with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, they”re all swirling around in slightly different films. Britton is introduced as the hero of the piece, but by the time the credits roll the script undermines her motivation and central mission. It establishes stakes only to ignore and abandon them in service of a one-joke-pony. Without giving too much away, there is a reason that Mike went into hiding, but that ceases to matter once it becomes inconvenient to the plot.
The “sleeper agent” trope is enjoyable because it plays on our fantasies. The idea of “waking up” to discover that you”ve got super-human abilities is wish-fulfillment at its best. One doesn”t even have to recall the rigorous training it took to attain the deadly skills, so it”s almost as if they arrived via magic. Yet, I found myself more attached to Mike as the lost puppy with the comic book dreams than the killer he becomes. That”s sort of the opposite of what is wanted in a film like this. The blending of stoner humor and violence has also been done before — and more effectively — certainly in “The Big Lebowski,” but also in more recent comedies such as “This is the End” and even to some degree “True Romance,” among others.
In the final analysis, “American Ultra” is a serviceable mid-August diversion with strong central performances and some effective comedic action to recommend it, but you”ll probably enjoy it best on VOD.
Take a look at Louis Virtel's take on why Stewart is so underrated in the video below: